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Personalized plates offer license for creativity

| Saturday, March 30, 2013, 9:00 p.m.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Lisa Riley shows her vanity license plate on Thursday, March, 28, 2013. Riley also owns two other vanity plates.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
A vanity plate photographed on Thursday, March, 28, 2013 that belongs to Lisa Riley.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
A vanity plate photographed on Thursday, March, 28, 2013, that belongs to Lisa Riley.
Sidney Davis | Tribune-Review
Lisa Riley with her vanity license plate on Thursday, March, 28, 2013. Riley also owns two other vanity plates.

Pennsylvania's love for vanity license plates continues to grow more than eight decades since it became the first state to allow drivers to personalize the stamped-metal placards affixed to their bumpers.

“I think they are more fun than the ‘XYZ 123,' ” said Lisa Reilly, 46, of McKees Rocks, who obtained her first vanity plate in 1987 and landed a plate reading “YINZERS” in April 2009. “I wanted something with Pittsburgh in it.”

More than 23,500 people in Pennsylvania secured plates with special messages in 2012, PennDOT figures show. That's up from 15,158 in 2009.

PennDOT added a website feature in 2010 allowing people to quickly find out whether their desired configuration was available, said spokeswoman Jan McKnight.

Other states do more to make those vanity plates a money-maker.

“States are using some very creative ways to generate revenue through providing services and opportunities that customers want,” said Catherine Curtis, director of vehicle programs for an Arlington, Va., group. “Lotteries and auctions offer ways for people to participate and get a plate they've always wanted.”

Texas in 2009 became the first state to expand sales beyond its motor vehicle agency and have an outside vendor sell plates.

“I think most states are missing out on the opportunity we're maximizing here in Texas,” said Kim Miller Drummond, a spokeswoman for MyPlates.com, an Austin-based private vendor charged with boosting license-plate revenues in the Lone Star State by $25 million during a five-year period ending in 2014.

Proceeds are divided among the vendor, state and charities.

As of this week, $15.2 million has gone to the Texas general fund from MyPlates.com through the sale of nearly 139,000 personalized license plates in less than three years, Drummond said. She noted that money came without taxpayer expense.

“It's a popular way to raise money for Texas because it's a choice. Nobody makes you get a specialty plate,” Drummond said. “We could do this for other states, but lawmakers must change laws to maximize this revenue stream.”

No such discussions have started in Pennsylvania, Mc-Knight said.

“I'm not saying we can't,” she said, “but it's never really been considered.”

Pennsylvania was the first state to offer customized plates starting in 1931, though plates were restricted to the driver's initials.

Today, every state offers personalized tags, and license plates are big business.

The nearly 10 million motor vehicles with vanity plates generate nearly $200 million in revenue collectively for states, according to the American Association of Vehicle Administrators.

Personalized plates account for about 280,000 of Pennsylvania's 11.5 million registered license plates. Customers pay a one-time fee of $20 for a vanity plate, which generated approximately $470,000 last year, not counting the annual $36 vehicle registration fee.

Prices for personalized plates on MyPlates.com range from $85 to $395 per year, with discounts offered for multi-year registration.

In 2011, MyPlates.com held its first “Great Plates Auction,” which sold highly coveted vanity plates to the highest bidders. The top price of $15,000 went for a “FERRARI” plate, while one reading “COWBOYS” fetched $11,500.

In January, another plate auction set a record when a car dealer paid $25,000 for a “HOUSTON” plate.

Before the auctions, no Texas license plate contained more than six characters. The auctioned plates allow the purchaser to transfer the plate, either to family or on the open market.

Open-market auctions, which aren't permitted in Pennsylvania, have landed lottery-sized jackpots here and abroad.

An Abu Dhabi businessman in 2008 bought a United Arab Emirates “1” plate for a record $14.3 million. Hong Kong in 2006 raised more than $30 million for charity by auctioning personalized tags.

People in Delaware have coveted low-numbered tags since they first were issued more than a century ago. Two plates — “8” and “11” — sold at auction in the past five years for $675,000 each.

“The interest in Delaware license plates will always be a fun topic,” said DelDOT spokesman Mike Williams.

Colorado is establishing an auction for expired but desirable plates, with proceeds benefiting disabled residents.

Illinois' governor wants to auction that state's “1” plate to raise money for veterans' groups.

Reilly said she believes a similar program in the Keystone State would be successful, especially if PennDOT offered a “STEELERS” tag.

“Think of the money they could make just with that one,” Reilly said. “But you'd have to be worried about people stealing it.”

Jason Cato is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7936 or jcato@tribweb.com.

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